You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown

Hayes Theatre Co, July 6

9 You're a good man Charlie Brown_5-7-16_Noni Carroll

Sheridan Harbridge, Laura Murphy, Mike Whalley, Andy Dexterity, Nat Jobe and Ben Gerrard. Photo: Noni Carroll

First staged off-Broadway in 1967, You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown is based on Charles M. Schulz’s legendary, long-running comic strip Peanuts with its group of anxious children and their beagle Snoopy, whose imaginary life includes being a World War I flying ace.

The musical comedy charts a day in the life of Charlie Brown told through a series of vignettes with catchy songs by Clark Gesner and Andrew Lippa (brought to perky life by musical director Michael Tyack and his four-piece band).

In keeping with the simplicity of Schulz’s drawings, Georgia Hopkins has designed a minimal set consisting of several drapes and a few set pieces including Schroeder’s piano, Snoopy’s kennel and a bench, while her costumes are instantly recognisable. Hugh Hamilton’s lighting brings plenty of colour to the simple staging.

Deftly directed by Shaun Rennie, the production boasts a cast of gifted comic actors who capture the wry, bittersweet humour of the piece so that it is charming but not too cutesy.

Interestingly, the York Theater Company experimented with a production, that ran off-Broadway in June, featuring relatively young children who had professional stage experience, some of them on Broadway. It led the New York Times to conclude that “this is a more demanding musical than you might remember” and that “there is a fair amount of complexity in these seemingly simple characters, which is why Charlie Brown is best when performed by adults, or at least by high school students.”

The adults in this Hayes Theatre Co production certainly find the emotional nuances in the characters.

116 You're a good man Charlie Brown_5-7-16_Noni Carroll

Sheridan Harbridge and Mike Whalley. Photo: Noni Carroll

At the heart of the show, Mike Whalley may not have the strongest singing voice but he is endearing as the lovable loser Charlie Brown. At times you want to hug him but his Charlie is no sad sack. Along with his loneliness and awkwardness, Whalley conveys Charlie’s resilient hope and droll self-awareness.

Sheridan Harbridge is hilarious as the forceful, super-crabby Lucy. Laura Murphy brings just the right heightened energy to Charlie’s indignant, stroppy younger sister Sally and her song My New Philosophy is a musical highlight.

Ben Gerrard as the smart, lisping, blanket-carrying Linus and Nat Jobe as the Beethoven-loving Schroeder are also spot on. Andy Dexterity (who does a terrific job as choreographer) stepped in late as Snoopy and does a commendable job though he still has more to find in his two big numbers.

Unfolding in a similar vein throughout, there are no great dramatic surprises but the musical is funny and gently touching. Children will find it accessible but the stronger appeal is the sense of nostalgia for adults looking back on childhood.

You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown runs at the Hayes Theatre Co until July 30. Bookings: www.hayestheatre.com.au or 02 8065 7337

 A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on July 9

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80 Minutes No Interval

Old Fitz Theatre, March 15

Ryan Johnson in 80 Minutes No Interval - 2 (c) Rupert Reid

Ryan Johnson as the hapless Louis in 80 Minutes No Interval. Photo: Rupert Reid

As it says on the packet, 80 Minutes No Interval runs for 80 minutes without an interval – which would doubtless please Claire, the girlfriend of the play’s hapless anti-hero Louis, who has no great love of theatre, particularly of the lengthy, pretentious variety.

Written and directed by Travis Cotton, and produced by Thread Entertainment in association with Red Line Productions, 80 Minutes No Interval is a ripping black comedy, which turns a satirical gaze on subsidised theatre, theatre critics, publishing, perfectionism and cursed bad luck.

Louis (Ryan Johnson) has an unhappy knack of detonating pretty much everything he touches. An aspiring but so-far failed novelist, he is sacked from his job as a newspaper theatre critic when his editor comes across a small red box robot, which uses algorithms to write better reviews than any mere mortal. Later Louis purports to be making a decent living as a freelance theatre reviewer (which had theatre reviewers chortling).

The kind of diner who would try the patience of the most solicitous waiter, Louis’s restaurant proposal to long-suffering (and clucky) girlfriend Claire (Sheridan Harbridge) is memorable for all the wrong reasons. His parents want him out of their investment property and the publisher who shows an interest in his latest novel– as long as he changes it and wracks up an army of Twitter followers – may not have quite the eye he once had. From there, it just goes from bad to worse.

80 Minutes No Interval rocks along with many laughs on the way (though I didn’t find it as wildly funny as some of the audience around me who roared out loud for much of it). The scene in the restaurant as an OCD Louis tries to order is a gem and Harbridge delivers a monologue, which is comic gold, about all that is wrong with theatre from seven-hour shows with dinner breaks, to Perspex boxes, blue faces and a litany of other clichés (many seen on Sydney stages in recent years).

As for the scene between Louis and the ruthlessly commercial publisher Dan Kurtz (an outrageously funny, outsized turn by Robin Goldsworthy), it’s gross-out hilarious.

Ryan Johnson, Jacob Allan & Sheridan Harbridge in 80 Minutes No Interval (c) Rupert Reid

Ryan Johnson, Jacob Allan and Sheridan Harbridge. Photo: Rupert Reid

Cotton’s writing has a great deal of comic flair but after a while the play does feel a bit like an over-extended skit with loads of things thrown into the mix, not all of which are followed through or fully come together. However, the show is deftly directed and staged with a set design by Georgia Hopkins, which includes a lovely reveal.

Johnson is the perfect foil to all the comical carry-on, playing things straight with an endearing performance as Louis. The rest of the cast, which also includes Jacob Allan as the admirably restrained waiter and Julia Rorke as a young florist, let rip with performances that knock the comedy out of the park though at times it feels as if they are all doing their own thing rather than responding to what’s happening around them.

A nip and tuck wouldn’t go astray, but 80 Minutes No Interval is often wickedly funny with serious points to make, and clearly tickled many in Tuesday’s packed house.

80 Minutes No Intervals runs at the Old Fitz Theatre until April 9. Bookings: www.oldfitztheatre.com

Rent

Hayes Theatre Co, October 13

The cast of Rent. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

The cast of Rent. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

The production of Rent currently playing at the Hayes Theatre Co sold out before opening. As announced last night at the Hayes’ Coming Soon launch for the first half of 2016, the show will have a three-week return season from March 29.

The rock musical with music, book and lyrics by Jonathan Larson – who died on the eve of its 1996 off-Broadway opening – quickly gained a cult following. It won a Pulitzer Prize, moved to Broadway and then onto the world, including Sydney where a production played at the Theatre Royal in 1998.

Loosely based on Puccini’s La boheme, Rent is set in Manhattan in the early 1990s and centres on a group of impoverished young artists and misfits who are struggling to survive as gentrification makes rents unaffordable and AIDS takes its devastating toll.

The musical is an explosion of passion, anger, sorrow, frustration and defiant joy.

Produced here by Highway Run Productions (Toby Francis and Lauren Peters) in association with the Hayes, helmed by first-time director Shaun Rennie and performed by a strong cast of 14, the production certainly pulses with youthful energy but it often feels over-busy, particularly in the first act.

That’s partly to do with the musical itself, which has a rather loose, disparate structure, following a number of different characters through several interconnecting story lines.

Central to the group are Mark (Stephen Madsen), a middle-class, would-be filmmaker, his roommate Roger (Linden Furnell), a songwriter with HIV and writer’s block whose girlfriend committed suicide, and Mimi (Loren Hunter), a drug addicted club dancer, who also has HIV.

There’s also the cross-dressing, joyously queer, gently caring Angel (Christopher Scalzo) and Collins (Nana Matapule), a gay anarchist professor, who fall for each other, Mark’s former girlfriend Maureen (Laura Bunting) and her new partner Joanne (Casey Donovan), and Benny (Matthew Pearce), a former friend of Mark and Roger who is now their tough landlord.

Nana Matapule, Chris Scalzo, Stephen Madsen and Linden Furnell. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Nana Matapule, Chris Scalzo, Stephen Madsen and Linden Furnell. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

With an ensemble that also includes Denise Devlin, Josh Gardiner, Jack O’Riley, Kirsty Sturgess, Monique Sallé and Chloe Elisabeth Wilson playing various other characters, there’s a lot going on, with important pieces of information often conveyed very briefly in a line or two of song.

Depending on where you sit in the theatre, there are sound issues, with the cast belting it out of the park to be heard over the band, and lyrics often hard to decipher. Rennie doesn’t manage to control the focus completely in the first act and it all feels as if it is coming at you at a million miles an hour, while the actors struggle to create strong, clearly defined characters as they sing full-bore.

Scalzo as Angel and Matapule as Collins, are the most successful at creating truthful characters we care about and their relationship is very much the heart and soul of the first act.

The second act is much more successful across the board. For a start, the musical itself quietens a little and the storylines are given more room to breathe. Furnell really finds his groove as Roger and his relationship with Mimi gains genuine traction. Hunter gives an intense, almost aggressive Mimi but conveys little of her vulnerability until late in the piece, when the production finally becomes moving.

Even in the second act there are times when the production feels unnecessarily busy, as when Collins carries the dying Angel from one table to another during Mimi and Roger’s song Without You, for seemingly little reason, which just proves distracting.

Then there’s the sign language, which Rennie and choreographer Andy Dexterity use periodically during the production. Many people have loved this element but I couldn’t help feeling it looks like an exercise used in the rehearsal room to explore the characters’ emotions, and probably should have stayed there. For me, it feels imposed rather than organic – though others clearly experienced it differently.

However, there is also much to enjoy. Rennie starts the second act in an unexpected way – a delightful, clever touch – and there’s lots of powerful singing.

Donovan and Bunting raised the roof on opening night with Take Me or Leave Me and Matapule delivers a lovely version of I’ll Cover You but all the performers all have their moment vocally.

Lauren Peters’ sparse, stripped back set – essentially a bare room with exposed bricks, a few props, and a metal mesh gate in front of the small band (led by musical director Andrew Worboys) – creates the right kind of grungy space, while Georgia Hopkins’ costumes work well.

It’s good to see young producers and a young, first-time director being given the chance to produce work like this and you can’t fault the energy and commitment of the cast. With a little more tightening, honing and focusing the production could really hit home so it’s great that the creative team will have the chance to revisit it early next year.

Rent, Hayes Theatre Co until November 1. Sold out. Return season March 29 – April 17. Bookings: www.hayestheatre.com.au or 02 8065 7337

Dogfight

Hayes Theatre Co, May 6

Luigi Lucente and Hilary Cole. Photo: Noni Carroll

Luigi Lucente and Hilary Cole. Photo: Noni Carroll

The musical Dogfight begins with a nasty, humiliating prank but turns into a sweet, tender show where redemptive love trumps misogyny.

Written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (music and lyrics) together with Peter Duchan (book), Dogfight premiered off-Broadway in 2012. It now makes its Australian premiere with a stunning production directed and produced by Neil Gooding in association with Hayes Theatre Co.

Based on a little-known 1991 film starring River Phoenix, with screenplay by Bob Comfort, Dogfight begins in 1967 with a blank-faced, clearly traumatised young marine called Eddie Birdlace (Luigi Lucente) on a Greyhound bus headed for San Francisco.

His memories take us back to 1963 when he and his two best mates – Boland (Toby Francis) and Bernstein (Rowan Witt) – spent a rowdy night on the town in San Francisco before being shipped out to Vietnam the following morning.

Swaggeringly macho, with just 13 weeks training under their belt, they naively believe they are going to storm into battle and return heroes. Their attitude to women is as aggressive as their attitude to war.

They decide to celebrate their last night on home soil with a “dogfight”, a vile “Jarhead” tradition whereby they compete to see who can bring the ugliest woman to a party. Each puts money into a pot; the winner takes all.

At the heart of the show are Eddie and Rose Fenny (Hilary Cole), the shy, awkward, guitar-playing waitress he picks up at a diner and takes to the party, then unexpectedly falls for.

Duchan has created a strong narrative structure from which the songs emerge naturally. Ranging from testosterone-powered rock numbers to lilting, wistful melodies, it’s an appealing, catchy score. Some of the songs have a folksy feel, with Rose foreshadowing the hippie era, while her number “Nothing Short of Wonderful” has something of a Sondheim influence.

James Browne and Georgia Hopkins have designed an economical set backed by a gauzy “brick wall” scrim featuring an enormous image of Cole’s face through which we glimpse the terrific six-piece band led by musical director Isaac Hayward. Four large diner seats are moved around into various configurations for the different locations. Effectively lit by Ross Graham and Alex Berlage, it’s a flexible space in which Gooding keeps the tightly choreographed action flowing freely: yet another clever design solution for the tiny 111-seat venue.

Cole is beguiling as Rose. She is naturally very pretty but manages to convince us of Rose’s vulnerability and gaucheness (helped by Elizabeth Franklin’s excellent costuming) as well as her strength, spirit and humour, while her pure, shining voice suits the character’s innocence perfectly.

Lucente is equally impressive as Eddie, conveying the turmoil of emotion coiled beneath the tough, terse exterior in a beautifully understated performance that moves from bravado to brokenness. There is great chemistry between the two of them, and both moved me to tears.

Luigi Lucente, Rowan Witt and Toby Francis. Photo: Noni Carroll

Luigi Lucente, Rowan Witt and Toby Francis. Photo: Noni Carroll

Among the strong ensemble cast of 11, Francis radiates Boland’s pumped-up, bone-headed machismo, while Witt gives a very convincing portrayal of the geeky Bernstein, who gets high on the general macho posturing and snaps at one point in a surprisingly brutal moment.

Johanna Allen brings powerhouse vocals to the role of the brassy hooker Marcy, another of the so-called “dogs”, while Mark Simpson takes on a number of very different roles with chameleon ease.

Dogfight portrays abhorrent macho behaviour, which the writers neither condone nor judge, but they make it clear that this is the culture that the young marines have grown up in and been shaped by: a culture, which dehumanises women as much as the enemy they are off to fight, but also knocks the soul out of the young men themselves.

When the musical played in London last year, some slammed it for its ugly misogyny, but the writers undercut this with the central love story, which is sweet, sad and genuinely moving. Our sympathies, meanwhile, are clearly with the women in the show, who are strong, funny and forgiving.

This production captures all that nuance most touchingly. Once again, the Hayes Theatre proves to be a leading light in Sydney’s musical theatre scene.

Dogfight plays at the Hayes Theatre Co until May 31. Bookings: www.hayestheatre.com.au or 02 8065 7337

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on May 10